Easter Sunday was our last full day in Budapest. Having battled the freezing rain for two days, we decided that if we are going to spend the day soaked by the rain, we may as well spend it soaked in a pool in the rain.
Budapest is often referred to as the City of Baths (also known as spas). A “bath” in this context is, in its simplest definition, a public pool. The public pools in Hungary are not for sport (unless specifically stated), however. They are for relaxing and healing, fed by the mineral-rich thermal spring water below the earth’s surface.
Hungary is rich when it comes to natural spring water sources. It’s reported that there are over 1,000 natural spring water sources in the country, including beneath the city of Budapest.
Széchenyi Thermal Baths
There are many thermal baths in Budapest. They differ in size, style, eras, price, and temperatures. It must be noted that it’s worth researching baths before visiting Budapest. Some baths are fully single-sex, some are fully mixed-sex, some have day-by-day single/mixed-sex rules.
We chose to visit Széchenyi Thermal Baths primarily because it is the only old medicinal bath on the Pest side of the city where we were staying. The complex consists of indoor and outdoor pools, dating back to 1913 and 1927, respectively. It’s also one of the largest public bathing pools in Europe and the most popular in Budapest.
It was a unique experience.
Széchenyi Thermal Baths – check-in
We arrived at noon and after a short wait in the queue, we were given fancy plastic watches. Unfortunately, I failed to take a photo of the watch but it had a blue wristband and a green watch “face”. There was no clock.
The watch was our ticket to get through the entrance gate to the locker rooms. It also served as our locker keys. To enter, we swiped the watch face against an electronic reader which then unlocked the gate and granted entry.
Getting through the gate was straightforward and from that point on, it was a confusing experience. There was very little signage and there was no signage in English.
We walked a bit further down the hallway and were able to see the outdoor pools through the windows. In the reverse direction was a hallway with a bunch of doors. Massage therapists were standing at the beginning of that hallway.
We concluded that, if you wanted a massage, all you needed to do was approach a massage therapist, and off you go.
We stood in the awkward foyer for a couple of minutes, observing everything that was happening around us. Eventually, we were approached by an employee who informed us that the locker rooms were downstairs.
My stomach sank a little bit as we descended into the lower level. I expected the worst – lots of naked people and total confusion on how to lock/unlock the locker via the watch.
Széchenyi Thermal Baths – locker rooms
As with most public facilities, the men’s locker room was closer and easier to access than the women’s locker room. The men’s locker room was immediately at the base of the stairs. This is where our baths journey would go separate ways for a brief moment. Peter entered the men’s locker room and I continued down the dark and narrow hallway to the women’s locker room.
The hallway continued after I entered the locker room. To the left were small rooms filled with lockers. To the right were hairdryers and mirrors. I walked the length of the locker room before I found a room that wasn’t rammed with people.
I quickly found an empty locker and changed into my swimsuit (British English: swimming costume). I stuffed all of my belongings in the locker, closed the door, and then dissected the insufficient signage tying to figure out how to lock the high-tech locker.
There was a peg on the locker door that could be pushed in and popped out. When the peg was in the inward position, the locker was locked and when it was in the outward position, the locker was unlocked. This seemed easy enough to operate but it was more complicated.
The peg was electronic and read the data on my watch, linking the locker to my watch. It took me four embarrassing attempts before I successfully locked the locker.
There were a series of steps to lock/unlock the locker. These were not detailed on the locker signage. For example, to lock the locker, you need to hold the watch face against the peg and only push the peg in after the wifi symbol on the peg turned red.
Feeling victorious from having locked the locker, I walked out of the locker room the same way I had come in and met Peter at the base of the stairs. We ascended the stairs to ground level, walked outside (more freezing rain), and slithered into one of the outdoor pools.
Széchenyi Thermal Baths – outdoor pools
Now, I was expected hot tub level temperatures given the steam that was coming off of the surface of the pool but that was not the case. The water temperature was about that of lukewarm bathwater.
There we were, wading in a lukewarm pool with freezing rain pelting our heads and shoulders. It was underwhelming.
People watching was the only activity available to us. There were old men playing chess. There were a variety of swimwear – banana hammocks, bikinis, board shorts, and full-body swimsuits.
We waded for about 15 minutes and then made a mad dash to the other outdoor pool, hoping for hotter water. Unfortunately, the water temperature of the second pool was colder than the first pool, however, the second pool had a brilliant whirlpool in the middle which provided much-needed entertainment.
Here is a video of the whirlpool.
The whirlpool current was very strong and made it impossible to exit the whirlpool without clutching the wall directly before the entrance/exit. People watching at the whirlpool was excellent. It’s amazing how something as simple as swirling water can make people laugh so hard.
Széchenyi Thermal Baths – sauna and indoor pools
We swirled around the whirlpool a couple of times and then clawed our way out of the whirlpool and out of the pool. We went inside and sat in a sauna for a few minutes and then plunged into an indoor pool which, ironically, had hot tub level water temperature.
Our visit to Széchenyi Thermal Baths lasted about two hours and though we would have liked the outdoor water temperature to be warmer, I felt our visit was money and time well-spent.
Would I revisit Széchenyi Thermal Baths? No. I would rather experience another bath in the city, possibly one that is smaller and less crowded.
Later that evening, we visited one of Budapest’s “ruin pubs”.
Ruin pubs are very popular in Budapest (and Berlin from what I’ve read). They are located in abandoned buildings, for example, buildings destroyed in WWII. Ruin pub owners purchase or rent the building and open a pub with minimal renovations (i.e. running water, toilets).
The ruin pub we visited did not have windows, nor a ceiling in some areas, and in place of doors were long, thick plastic strips like the ones in supermarket walk-in fridges.
The owners of this particular pub erected a canopy to shelter the area where the ceiling was missing, added lights, running water, toilets, and, of course, the bar.
It was an odd feeling sitting in the ruin pub. I sat there staring at my surroundings and wondering what it would have been like to live in Budapest during the war, or anywhere in Europe for that matter.
We flew back to London the following morning with a feeling that we’d just spent over three days in Budapest but had not experienced the city – shitty weather will do that.
Budapest is definitely a city that we should revisit, however, there are many other places first and I’ll leave it at that.